Last night Nesta hosted the launch of Charlie Leadbeater’s latest and long awaited book ‘We-think’ . The evening also featured the self proclaimed ‘antichrist of silicon valley’, Andrew Keen, author of last years ‘Cult of the Amateur’. The two speakers were set up to occupy opposing ends of the debate around the impact of the web on society, economy and politics. However the discussion was remarkably agreeable, but that’s not to say they both agreed; far from it.
I won’t go over their arguments in detail rather will pick out a couple of the points which I found most interesting in the context of many of the things we are grappling with as part of NESTA Connect.
Charlie’s perspective is that we are moving from a world where ‘you are what you own’ to ‘we are what we share’. His thesis is nicely summarised in this little youtube video for a quick summary we-think and reminds me of a little of the excellent The Machine is Us/ing Us. He goes on to argue that the impact of the web will spread much further than media and entertainment and will have significant impact around 70% of the economy, and interestingly the biggest impact will be on the developing world where technology will allow millions of people to become participators. In terms of the pace of change, it could be remarkably slow, as much as 50 years for the culture to shift in many organisations. There are many issues yet to be resolved but on balance the impact on freedom, equality and democracy will be beneficial.
Andrew paints Charlie as a utopian (in the best possible taste). He stated that the web encourages anonymity and allows people not to take responsibility for their actions. He also had few kind words for people such as Chris Anderson, who he says have embraced the internet as an excuse for doing away with the state, absolute free market, doing away with State. He also controversially, states that academics are perfectly placed to be the risk takers of the future. The tenure system lends itself towards inward thinking but challenge is to lend itself to more speculative thinking. He argues that Universities might be the front line of the new battle and is the perfect institution to be turned upside down.
The most interesting part of the discussion for me was that the web, a platform that lends itself to sharing and arguably the 1960s greatest legacy, is now the platform for modern commerce which is based on individual ownership and competition. So the key challenge will be how will big organisations, whether private or public, will adapt to this collaborative world? Interestingly the debate around the impact of the web in the US tends to be mostly focussed upon the economics, but the debate last night focussed as much on the social and political implications. The consensus from both speakers was that organisations are critical and require a core engine that makes the rules and combines both top down and bottom up solutions.
So in conclusion, it was an interesting and thought provoking evening with lots of meaty issues to chew over. My own views are obviously more closely aligned with we-think than cult but Andrew made some interesting and perhaps deliberately controvertial statements, only some of which I disagreed with. For me, this reinforces the sentiment that concencus creates echo not bandwidth and that diverse or extreme perspectives are a good thing. With that in mind we should actively encourage and set up more debates and discussions along these lines. What unlikely pairing could and should we get next time?